Interview: A doctor on life under Assad and Islamic State


© Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: Doctor Thaier Al-Husain: He lived in Raqqa and fled Syria in 2013 after the rise of Islamic State. He now lives in Yeovil.

© Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: Doctor Thaier Al-Husain: He lived in Raqqa and fled Syria in 2013 after the rise of Islamic State. He now lives in Yeovil.



Dr. Thaier Al-Husain is a medical doctor who worked in Syria during the early years of the conflict and joined Doctors Without Borders in April 2013. He worked for Doctors Without Borders until August 2014 and moved to London to study for Masters in International Health at UCL. He founded 6abibak, an Online Arabc Medical Journal which is now one of the largest followed health journals in the Arab world with over 14 million followers on Facebook.


DESCRIBE LIFE IN RAQQA BEFORE THE WAR.


Before the war, life was simple. You work short hours due to the weather, we start working at 09:00 am till 14:00 pm. It’s a pretty simple life. Not a lot of clubs, not a lot of places to go out to, but lots of relatives to visit. It was not too conservative, there is a mixture of people. We have Christians, Kurds, Arabs and a secular and religious community. You went to high school five days a week, and had two days off a week and used free time to swim over the weekend, visit relatives and friends and smoked nargila/shisha. Everyone in Raqqa knows how to swim! Eventually I went to Armenia to study medicine. I have four brothers and one sister (I hope I’m right!). My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father was a cardiologist and he was head of the Intern Medicine Department in the National Hospital and Head of Infectious Diseases Control Department in the whole governate. Medicine was a family business, and he passed on the mission to me.


BEFORE THE WAR, WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE UNDER THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT?


Politics in Raqqa and the governate in general was a neglected area. People were poorer than in other areas of the country. They had to play nice with the regime and please the government as much as possible through Ba’athist party events, conventions and celebrations. It rarely worked and the city languished in poverty. Family politics, rather than regime politics, was dominant as supposed to sectarian or ethnic or regime politics. People would pretend to be pro-regime and please those in power to use that influence to shore up their positions for family benefit. The people in Raqqa are survivalists.


DESCRIBE LIFE DURING THE OPENING STAGES OF THE REVOLUTION in Raqqa?


It didn’t feel real. I couldn’t believe it, it was strange watching it on videos and on Facebook. I always knew the Assad regime was murderous, but it was very blurred and the degree to which protests were sweeping the country. It was unclear whether the regime was killing people or not at that point. People would say one thing, then they would say another thing. At the hospital, different people from the same or different areas would say different things either that people were dying or that the situation was calm. It doesn’t feel real until it starts happening in your own city. It was a very confusing time. Raqqa didn’t get involved until later. People were poor, they wanted to get on with their lives and feared that if they caused trouble or got involved with politics, Assad would cut off the little support his regime gave to the city.

The Syrian Revolution occurred alongside the Arab Revolutions, and my family was divided on the issue. My brother was very optimistic. He believed Assad would fall within six months because the Western powers and the Arab states would not allow the Syrian regime to kill protesters and act with impunity. He was deeply involved in activism, promoting, organising and leading. He was a big risk-taker and I told him “If something happens to you, your parents will not survive this.” He responded, “The country needs us.” He was brave and irresponsible, but if the world don’t have people like him, the world doesn’t move forward. People like my brother were the ones who would get killed first.

Many of my friends were detained and disappeared. If people had started disappearing before the uprising, it would have been shocking and traumatised me. I would have campaigned for their release, been very worried and too scared to mention them. However during the uprising, when you saw how many people were being killed by the regime (which I knew would happen), I couldn’t believe, I couldn’t imagine that the scale of the disappearances that took place would occur. There were so many people killing each other even without the help of the regime. My friends disappeared, when their Facebook pages and chats went silent for months and their accounts were hacked and filled with regime propaganda I would delete them or forget that I knew this person. There was people who left my life just like that. When you’re under this much stress, you can’t take care of everyone, you start closing down and eventually you’re just taking of yourself and your family. You don’t have energy to even care for family at one point.

My opinion was very different. This was a criminal regime, but I sat down with revolutionaries and activists and I asked the: “Can you tell me what freedom is?” They responded “Getting rid of Bashar.” “What happens next?” I asked. They said that they would hold free and open elections. I then asked them who they would elect, who was the alternative to Assad. This is partly what many international powers and politicians abroad will have been thinking as the revolution got underway. There was no real alternative to the Syrian regime to hold the delicate ‘peace’ together in a sensitive area of the Middle East. The revolutionaries didn’t know what they wanted next. You can’t change things at the top of the pyramid, if you change the pyramid at the top you can end up with a similar person in power. If you want to change politics, and change how things work you need to start from the bottom. This takes years, and it took the Assad regime over four decades to implant the system of corruption and bribery. It’s imbedded in the blood of people in Syria. Nothing moves, no document get signed, you can’t do anything in Syria until you pay money to someone. They call it ‘Spreading Spices’. You can’t make a dish without adding spices, it’s part of daily routine, nothing works without bribing someone or calling a person for favours. I have paid multiple bribes to people and have been called for favours: that is the norm. You can’t change that overnight. People are making a living from this status quo and these people have so much too to lose from the regime falling. The revolt was a terrible decision.

There was rage against the Syrian regime and the system. People were getting tired of asking for favours for basic rights from state institutions, and if they go to a different country and they do not have to do this, they sense the difference and find it insulting. People were really upset but it was a spontaneous reaction - not dissimilar to the vote on Brexit (no plan). The only other option was destruction. There was not enough time to enact real change. Bashar Assad is a criminal, a psychopath. The way he talks about things, and the denial he is in is terrible. He was a psychopath - who spent time in the UK - who tried to evolve the country in the first decade as president. He was getting rid of the old guard and change the regime of his father. He was a dictator but he was building ties with Erdogan and King Abdullah, and we were almost getting visa-free access to Turkey. He wasn’t on good terms with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (assassinated in 2005) but this was a matter of pride for these sorts of people. What is perceived as disrespect can lead to elimination: this is how a psychopath deals with dissent.


DESCRIBE LIFE IN HOSPITAL DURING WAR-TIME. WAS YOUR HOSPITAL EVER TARGETED? WERE YOU EXPECTED TO INFORM ON OTHERS?


When Raqqa was under the control of the regime the hospital was not targeted. Police were regularly in the hospital though. Injured soldiers were in hospital so many of them had to stay to protect them. I don’t recall a time when the police were not there to target opposition members rather to protect us as medical staff, it wasn’t in their interest. We had to make lists. Injuries on people suspected of being in protests or part of the oppositionAs a doctor, you knew if they were opposition by their story. The story would not match the injury or if they are young and active (fit the profile), they might be hiding signs or flags or you know them. I treated them and usually asked “Why the hell did you come to the hospital when you have this type of injury, they will catch you, arrest you and take you to prison where you’ll disappear.” I had to fake the diagnoses to protect them for example: they fell, hit their head, they were punched in a domestic, he slipped on a bar of soap.


IN MARCH, 2013, A COALITION OF REBEL INCLUDING HAYET TAHRIR AL-SHAM, ISLAMIC STATE AND THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY CAPTURED RAQQA. HOW DID LIFE CHANGE?


I left a week after Islamic State and the coalition of rebels arrived. The city wasn’t ‘liberated’, it was gifted to them by the Syrian government and military. Assad wanted to let all the other Syrian cities and the rest of the population know what would happen if a whole city came under the control of the opposition. The regime pulled out and the whole city was taken in three hours. How can you can take a whole city in three hours? It took the U.S-led coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces years to recapture Raqqa. Raqqa’s fall was a terrible moment for me. I told my parents that we had to leave. I told them that the Syrian army would level the city.

On 4th March I posted on Facebook: Raqqa is our city with all of its buildings, all of its municipalities, its gardens, its banks. We are responsible for everything. Let go of your fear, thank your God and protect your neighbourhood and protect your neighbours for today. The money in the banks is not your money, its the money of the people. Do not be cheerful for the easy money you stole today because the rockets will erase you and them tomorrow. We will be bombarded. We will be beaten. We will be bled in the coming days. We will remain the people of Raqqa City.

My parents wouldn’t leave until our house got bombed. The city was destroyed within five days of the city being taken by the rebels. What happened next was what I expected. The rebels were clearing out pockets abandoned by the regime. The regime said “Ok, you want a rebel city. There you go. Let’s see how they rule this city. We’ve planted the seeds of Islamic State in the opposition.” This was the beginning of the descent of the Syrian opposition and civil war in Raqqa, and the fracturing of the opposition into different factions in Raqqa. The capture of Raqqa was the downfall of the rebels. For the Syrian regime, the world was taught a lesson. Homs and Aleppo, for example were never fully taken, it was just Babr Amr in Homs that was destroyed, Raqqa was completely taken. The maps of Syria and cities show the regime was happy to concede poorer areas of cities and the countryside to the rebels. The government were not afraid to wipe these areas off the map because they needed to be renovated and future projects they needed to be destroyed anyway. They could bomb the area, reduce it to rubble, clear away the people who supported the rebels, rebuild it and fill the rebuilt areas with pro-regime officials. Who can prove these people actually existed because they wiped out their records. The refugee swaps are not ‘ethnic cleansing’ per se, it is more like a ‘class cleansing’ done in a specific way.


HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN ISLAMIC STATE DECLARED A SO-CALLED ‘CALIPHATE’ IN SYRIA, AND YOUR HOME THEIR ‘CAPITAL’?


I started laughing. What was sad was that people brought Islamic State’s lies, not just the Western powers, but also ordinary people who thought it was real caliphate, that what they did was real Islamic law, and that it was a state. How stupid can you be to believe this? Ignorance perhaps, but it was very sad to see and in future people need to better educated. The activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently started with really good intentions. They wanted people to see what was going on, but they were manipulated or taken advantage of by certain political groups in the opposition. People were very brave to be able to take those photos and so many paid with their lives for it. They were assassinated in Raqqa or over the border in Turkey. My brothers and cousins who all worked with Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently eventually left the country. My parents remained in Raqqa during this time under Islamic State. They returned to Raqqa in September, 2013 and stayed there until May, 2014. When Islamic State seized complete control of the city, they were blocked inside their house for three days. One of our neighbours was shot on the way to the bakery by a sniper and lay in front of my parents door for three days. It was terrible.


WHY DID YOU EVENTUALLY DECIDE TO FLEE SYRIA? wHERE DID YOUR FAMILY GO, ARE YOU STILL IN TOUCH?


There was an incident. I didn’t want to leave, I really wanted to stay and I thought things would get better at some point, but we couldn’t imagine how bad it would get. In Tal Abyaad on the border with Turkey and an hour and half drive from Raqqa, where I was based after leaving the city, a ethnic conflict broke out between the Kurds and Islamic State. My brother was kidnapped around that time. He was held for 18 days before his release, and after I got him out across the border to Turkey, I asked myself “Should I leave, my family is no longer in Syria?” I stayed because I thought people needed me. When we were breaking fast for Ramadan, including the doctors. I joined them and then suddenly we heard gunshots. Why are people shooting inside the hospital? We went outside and saw an Islamic State emir or leader screaming. He from Tal Abyad, and a key leader in the town, not some informant or small-time fighterI don’t wear scrubs in the hospital, I wear casual clothes to avoid being targeted. My friend, who was a nurse, always like wearing the scrubs. Him and I were walking towards the hospital and the Islamic State fighter thought that he was the doctor. He started punching him and broke his glasses, he was angry that they were not treating a fighter who had injured his foot. I was very upset, we were breaking our fast. I was trying to use his own religious logic. It was foolish to confront an agitated, shouting man with grenade on his belt and carrying a gun. He shouted “Who the fuck are you? Who made you the mullah?!” My colleague intervened and talked to the man, apologising. The man continued “You doctors think you are so smart, once we’re done here, we’re coming after you.” He could have killed me, and for me that was when I made the decision to go.


HAVE YOU HEARD FROM ANY OF YOUR FRIENDS IN RAQQA SINCE YOU LEFT?


I have heard from a few of them. We speak once a year, but I don’t speak regularly because awful news usually comes out of Syria and I want to avoid that. I would feel helpless and that it is not a helpful way to live your life.


WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON FOREIGNERs WHO JOINED Islamic state AND LIVED IN RAQQA?


They were clearly searching for a purpose in their lives and were troubled people. I don’t want to imagine what they must have been going through in their home countries. They must have been facing many problems that they weren’t able to talk about, or guilt. They may be religious but facing problems such as alcoholism, drug or sex addiction, isolation in their communities. A question of faith may have motivated them and they may have wanted to do something profound to redeem themselves in the eyes of God. What better way to do it than go die in Syria in jihad? It is escapism. It is a deep challenge within the Muslim community. Killing in the name of Islam doesn’t solve your problems. Syrian communities were frightened by these people and their extremist views. They didn’t understand Syria or the basic tenants of Islam (some of them didn’t even speak Arabic). Begum was one of those who left when she was quite young. What was her crime? Was she groomed? Did she commit crimes in Syria? She’s promoting the killing of other people and promoting hate and extremist ideology. The Islamic State refugees are in flux, no one wants them. I understand people’s sentiment, but these people chose to join the Islamic State. Children who were born under Islamic State are a different story. The adults made a concious choice to join a genocidal organisation; groomed or not groom. They are pro-killing. These people must pay the consequences for their actions.


WHAT WAS YOUR RESPONSE WHEN RAQQA WAS RECAPTURED, AND ITS DESTRUCTION?


After everything you have seen, it doesn’t surprise you. For me, as soon as I left, I was in mourning but eventually I had to move on. I mourned my friends and family and if someone or something survived I was happy. 70% of our five-storey building was levelled. Such destruction can happen anywhere, anytime given the right circumstances.


WHICH MOMENTS DO YOU THINK HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR EMOTIONAL EXHAUSTION AND SURVIVOR’S GUILT THE MOST?


So many innocent people paid the price and were not involved. They didn’t support the opposition or the Assad regime. They lost limbs, lives, hopes and homes. They were completely innocent and those no one to help them now. You ask the question what you could have done, but you can’t do anything about it and eventually you have to look after yourself. Slowly but surely you have to cut yourself off from the pain. There were still moment that shocked me during the war. At the hospital one day in 2012, an old man from Raqqa at the hospital. There had been fighting outside the city, and many bodies had been left in the open for several days. A truck went to collect the decomposed bodies of Syrian soldiers for identification, what was left of them. The man asked me “Did they bring the bodies in?” I snapped at him saying “Why are you asking me,” I said, “Ask someone else.” The man became tearful as it turned out his son had been serving in the area during the fighting and he had come to make sure his body was among them. People were dying on every side. Soldiers being forced to fight. Death was everywhere. In the wider spectrum of the Syrian War, torture didn’t shock me. This wasn’t new nor were the prisons. The killing of soldiers who deserted or disobeyed did not shock me. The earlier stages of the conflict and the siege of Homs was truly shocking in 2012 when regime tanks were running people down and the disproportionate response of the army in towns and cities across the country. Even the unimaginable eventually became normal. The behaviour of ordinary people surprised me and videotaping of atrocities were also very brutal.


WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR FUTURE, DO YOU WANT TO RETURN TO RAQQA?


It depends. I can’t keep thinking about the past or I’ll never move on. This year is the first time I feel like I have a life, a home. For now I’m thinking of staying in the UK until the situation calms down in Syria, until I am absolutely certain it’s safe to return. My brother can never return while the Assad government is in power. The regime will still be there, and my other brothers and sister could be detained and used to blackmail my brother.



THE JOURNEY THAT SHAPED ME’ - THAIER AL-HUSSAIN SPEAKING AT THE COURTAULD INSTITUTE OF ART IN MARCH, 2018.


In May 1968, a group of young doctors decided to go and help victims of wars and major disasters. This new brand of humanitarianism would reinvent the concept of emergency aid. They were to become Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known internationally in English as Doctors Without Borders. Since 1980, MSF has opened offices in 28 countries and employs more than 30,000 people across the world. Since its founding, MSF has treated over a hundred million patients—with 8.25 million outpatient consultations being carried out in 2014 alone. Become part of the MSF movement and help them deliver medical care where the need is greatest, anywhere in the world.